Aside from tampons and contraceptive devices, another thing that the Soviet Union did not have was literary critics. The anti-intellectual tendencies in the Soviet Union started with Lenin who routinely talked about “whining and decaying intellectuals” who are “the lackeys of capital” and “not the brains of the nation but its shit.” If I were a really mean person, I could entertain myself with imagining what the Soviet regime would have done to a nerdy erudite like Eagleton. It is always very curious to observe how people strive to extol and promote the same regimes that would have killed them faster than you can say “dialectical materialism.”
In 1928, the Central Committee of Eagleton’s dearly beloved Communist Party declared its own right to “exercise guidance over the creative process.” This means that artists who refused to practice the artistic style of socialist realism were banned from making their work accessible to the public in any way. If these artists happened to be non-Russian, they were killed. The only literary critic who was permitted to survive was Bakhtin. He was put in charge of creating a new Soviet canon. Works of the world literature for which Bakhtin managed to find a pro-Communist explanation were included in the canon. This means that the Soviet people were allowed to know that these works existed and even read them if they were so lucky as to find a copy. (I can blog about access to books in the Soviet Union later, in case anybody is interested.)
Rabelais and Cervantes made it onto the approved list. Bakhtin and his school managed to create a theory according to which Don Quijote was a leader of a class struggle who opposed his more genuine values to the ideology of ruthless capitalism that was making its way into Spain. (If you don’t believe me, there is a 1957 Soviet film Don Quixote that embodies this scarily insane reading. It was shown during the celebrations of the 400 anniversary of the publication of Don Quijote, Part I. After the showing, an older specialist on Cervantes who came to our university for the festivities came up to me. “My health is not very good,” he said. “Somebody should have warned me about this because I almost had a heart attack while I watched them destroy Cervantes this way.”) Pretty much no literature from the twentieth century made it through the censors. As I mentioned before, world literature for us stopped at Dickens. I hated literature classes both at school and at the university because they consisted exclusively of scouring Homer, Moliere and Pushkin for evidence of class struggle.
Eagleton, who used to be a brilliant literary critic, has now adopted this style of literary criticism. I could have forgiven him for a crappy propaganda of Marxism. What has me completely disgusted by the book, though, is an attempt to discuss Milton, Shakespeare and Goldsmith as proponents of class struggle. Here is an example of this kind of analysis in Why Marx Was Right:
Take this couplet about a wealthy landlord from Oliver Goldsmith’s poem “The Deserted Village”: “The robe that wraps his limbs in silken sloth Has robbed the neighbouring fields of half their growth.” The symmetry and economy of the lines themselves, with their neatly balanced antithesis, contrast with the waste and imbalance of the economy they describe. The couplet is clearly about class struggle.
Or, take the following gem on Hardy’s Jude the Obscure:
In Thomas Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure, Jude Fawley, an impoverished artisan living in the working-class area of Oxford known as Jericho, reflects that his destiny lies not with the spires and quadrangles of the university, but “among the manual toilers in the shabby purlieu which he himself occupied, unrecognized as part of the city at all by its visitors and panegyrists, yet without whose denizens the hard readers could not read nor the high thinkers live” (Part 2, Ch. 6). Are these poignant words a statement of Marx’s base/superstructure doctrine? Not exactly. In materialist spirit, they draw attention to the fact that there can be no mental labour without manual labour. Oxford University is the “superstructure” to Jericho’s “base.” If the academics had to be their own cooks, plumbers, stone masons, printers and so on, they would have no time to study.
Not only is this kind of literary analysis boring and reductive, it has also been done to death. I spent countless hours as a Soviet and post-Soviet student copying precisely this kind of drivel from the Soviet alternative to literary criticism. I could not have invented a better way of demonstrating the profoundly anti-intellectual nature of communism if I tried. Eagleton demonstrates to us how an intellectual, a famous literary critic, a thinker is reduced to spouting senseless inanities in his own field of knowledge the moment he attempts to defend an ideology that has proven to be a failure time and again.
2 thoughts on “Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx Was Right: A Review, Part II”
That sounds a lot like what he used to write in the 1976 book “Marxism and Literary Criticism.” He was always a Marxist literary critic, wasn’t he? I think he’s returning to his roots. I admit I haven’t read this book for many years, so I could be remembering it wrong.
Of course. But there are many Marxist literary critics who can offer something more insightful than this. Besides, one expects an intellectual to grow since 1976. It will make me very sad if 35 years from now I discover that all I do is regurgitate the same old stuff from all these years ago.
Eagleton is only 67. This is an age when intellectuals flourish and often produce their best work. It’s too early for him to lose all originality.